Keeping the Flame Alive

By Brandon Rennels


Last winter in Plum Village, a friend told me my first name can be translated as “Fire-starter.” At the time I had just begun my role as a coordinator for the international Wake Up movement. I was working alongside Buddhist monks and nuns to support young adults in practicing mindfulness and creating communities where they live. Wake Up had been growing steadily over the past few years, and many conditions had come together to allow me the opportunity to dedicate my efforts to the cause. I had been searching for a way to apply my business consulting background to support mindfulness practice, and this was it. It was a dream job—my answer to: “What would you pay to do?” I saw many opportunities to contribute, to support people, to get things rolling.

But fire, when uncontrolled, can be extremely destructive. Coming from a corporate background, I was used to pushing the limits of my mental and physical capacity in order to “get things done.” Once I transitioned to working with the mindfulness community, I naively thought these habits would drop away. I soon learned that working on mindfulness projects does not necessarily mean one is working mindfully. In addition to my old work habits, I encountered a new stress, a second arrow of frustration, when I felt overburdened. Most people in the corporate world will admit they’re stressed out by work, but in the mindfulness realm I thought I should be calm 24/7. So when things went awry, as they often do, I felt bad about feeling bad.

Even though I had found work that I truly cared about, my path had really just begun. To balance doing vs. being, engagement vs. rest, making a difference vs. taking care of myself, and to protect and nurture my internal flame—this was my true “job.” To protect this flame I have often relied on the other elements of air, water, and earth. All the elements are necessary for our survival, yet all have the potential to destroy. What’s necessary is a cultivation of them in balance. Fortunately, I’ve had some help from friends along the way.

Last summer I had the good fortune of being able to visit many different Wake Up Sanghas in the Netherlands. We started most meditation sessions with a weather report about how we were feeling in the moment, aided by the metaphor of the elements.

During my time in the Lowlands, I was able to touch, taste, and play with these elements in different ways, ultimately finding ways to sustain my internal flame.


Air: I Am a Cloud

I had heard that the Netherlands is famous for its clouds. From my observations, I can see why. Big puffy clouds resemble something familiar, but when you turn away for an instant, the scene morphs, and the imagination has a fresh canvas to play with. Through the wind, air acts as an invisible force, shaping and transforming the outer landscape.

Air affects the inner landscape as well, in the form of the breath. Each Wake Up event starts with sitting meditation, following our breathing: full in-breath, full out-breath. I enjoy beginning this way. It really allows a person to arrive. (I went to visit a Wake Up Sangha in Belgium for a “Wake Up and Play” event, a gathering specifically designed to have no formal meditation, but after an hour everyone decided that we should sit! Sometimes you need to arrive before you can have fun.)

Air also carries sounds. Sound, like the wind, is an invisible force that can heal, seduce, enchant. During my fi weekend in the Netherlands, one of my hosts had a birthday party. At one moment we all lay down on the floor with our heads together, listening to the sounds, to our breathing, to one another. I was acting DJ for the evening and thought to put on a French electronic artist who just happens to be named “Air.” Shortly after the opening beat, one of the guys said, “Oh, nice! This is the perfect moment for Air.” I smiled to think that two people who grew up on different continents with different cultures and different life experiences could so easily be united by music.

As everyone was leaving, I realized that this constellation of people might never again be in the same room together. Impermanence. Just as the cloud changes shape, so does the fabric of each moment of our lives. I was grateful for the moments we shared.


Water: Flowing Like a River

It’s easy to flow like a river when you like the direction in which you’re headed. During a lazy day in Amsterdam, I had the luxury of sitting (well, lying down, really) on the back of a paddleboat. It was a magnificent, sunny summer afternoon, and I had just peeled an orange and was savoring each slice while my toes skimmed the surface of the water. At one moment we started turning sideways, and after a few seconds I began to wonder, “Where are we going?” The two people paddling seemed to have been distracted. It didn’t matter. So what if we were off track? I was confident we would find our way.

While it’s one thing to keep this trust when you’re being chauffeured on a calm canal, it can be more difficult to maintain trust when the waters are high. At one point in my stay, there was a weeklong stretch that was quite packed. We had events almost every day in different cities, my work responsibilities had picked up, and on top of it all I wasn’t sleeping very well. Our final event for the week was about awareness of food waste, and although I was interested in the topic, I debated whether it would be better for me to just rest. We arrived the night before on a cold, rainy evening, and by the time we got to our host’s house it was well past my bedtime. Knowing how much work had been put into this event, I decided to flow with the river and join.

When we arrived at the event the next morning, judging by the number of teacups and tired faces, it seemed everyone had had a long week. A few people shared that they were tired, and we all listened, together taking refuge in the Sangha. Our next activity was a silent walk, but as people were slowly gathering their belongings, a new idea emerged. The organizers, sensing the energy level, switched the program to an interactive game. I was unsure if this would be a welcome change, but after a few minutes of laughing and stumbling into one another, the group’s mood had clearly lifted. Sometimes a simple adjustment can have a delightful downstream effect.

The events of that week provided an opportunity for me to reflect on how to balance “doing together” and “being together.” In the face of much to do, again I saw that the habit energy of rushing had, at times, gotten the best of me. That’s okay. It happens. But I knew I needed to observe this tendency deeply if I wanted to sustain the flame in the long run. The term “burnout” is often used to describe a metaphorical extinguishment of our internal flame. A surplus of air (impermanence) or water (flowing as a river) can create unstable conditions for fire, so to protect myself I can call on the solid foundational element, earth.


Earth: Rooted as a Tree

Have you ever hugged a tree? It took me a while before I physically embraced my fi tree. The term “tree-hugger” conjured up a negative image in my mind, and this judgment persisted until I visited a national park in California. I saw someone wrapped snugly around a giant sequoia, and she looked happy enough. I tried it myself. Whoa! It actually feels great. Trees, like mountains, are metaphors of stability in mindfulness practice. In a storm the branches sway but the trunk is solid, stable, unmoved. While the Dutch claim that they don’t have much “nature” (as most areas have been developed), I found plenty of trees to take refuge in.

One stop on my trip was a Sangha meeting in Rotterdam. Upon entering the home where we would be practicing, I was immediately invited to share a meal with the hosts. This particular Sangha felt mature and stable, and as I was feeling a bit ungrounded that day, I was thankful to take refuge in them. As we all settled into sitting meditation together, I began breathing in their solidity, and soon the image of a tree appeared in my mind’s eye. It had brilliant brown bark with a wide trunk and roots that dug down deep. In the center of the trunk there was a door, and I found myself wondering what was inside. After a few more breaths the door slowly opened, and inside were my mother, my father, and me as a five-year-old child, all inviting me in. They welcomed me with open arms, gave me some space, and breathed with me. With each breath I felt recharged, encouraged, and free.

If there was ever an “island within,” I had found it. In this space I felt safe, and with each breath I was able to ground myself in the solidity of my ancestors and of Mother Earth. By the end of the evening I had rekindled the inner flame and given it space to burn brighter, like a torch guiding my way and igniting my deep aspiration to change myself, and by extension, the world.

Home Is Where the Heart Is

At the end of my time in the Netherlands, I had the honor of co-facilitating the Sangha meeting in Nijmegen. As I led the mindful movements and deep relaxation, I felt so comfortable, as if I was among old friends. Many of the people in the room I had gotten to know through numerous encounters within and outside of the Sangha meetings.

The Dharma sharing that evening was filled with a lot of emotion. There was the joy of a new baby, sadness of a pending death in the family, difficult jobs, new relationships… this was the real deal! We shared and listened, breathing together with what Jon Kabat-Zinn would call the “full catastrophe” of this shared human experience.

At the end of the evening we all gathered in a circle for a group hug. Looking around, I felt the entire community supporting me and knew I could handle whatever challenges lay ahead. The flame was burning brightly and it felt good. We sang one last song together, and it was a fitting way to end my journey:

Been traveling a day Been traveling a year
Been traveling a lifetime, to find my way home
Home is where the heart is
Home is where the heart is
Home is where the heart is, my heart is with you.

mb65-Keeping5Brandon Rennels, True Garden of Faith, has been serving, living, and lounging within the Plum Village community for the last couple years. As a coordinator for Wake Up, he has had the privilege of interfacing daily with passionate young practitioners around the world. He has also logged enough time at the monastery to significantly improve his table tennis game. In a previous life he was a management consultant based out of Dubai.

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Dharma Talk: Community as a Resource

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

We can make people happy. One person has the capacity to be an infinite resource of happiness for others. The more we practice the art of mindful living, the more we become a source of happiness and joy. This is possible.

Thich Nhat Hanh

But we need a place, such as a retreat center or a monastery, where we can go to renew ourselves. The features of the landscape, the buildings, and the sound of the bell should be designed to remind us to return to awareness. Even when we cannot actually go to the retreat center, we can think of it, smile, and feel ourselves becoming peaceful.

The community does not need to be big. It is enough to have ten or fifteen permanent residents who emanate freshness and peace, the fruits of living in awareness. When we go there, they care for us, console and support us, and help us heal our wounds.

From time to time, the residents can organize large retreats so that we can learn the arts of enjoying our lives more and taking good care of each other. Mindful living is an art, and this community can be a place where joy and happiness are real. They can also offer Days of Mindfulness, so that people can come and live one happy day together in community. And they can organize courses that teach The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, and other courses on Buddhist psychology and healing in a Buddhist way. Most retreats will be for preventive practice, practicing mindful­ness before things get too bad. But some retreats should be for people who are undergoing a lot of suffering, although even then two-thirds of the retreatants should be healthy, happy people. Otherwise it may be difficult to succeed.

Practice has a lot to do with the happiness of the people in a family or a community. We practice not only in the meditation room, but in the kitchen, the backyard, the office, and in school as well. How can we incorporate practice into our daily lives, so that our daily lives can be joyful and happy?

The sangha is a community that lives in harmony and awareness. When you are with your family and you practice smiling, breathing, recognizing the Buddha in yourself and your children, then your family becomes a sangha. If you have a bell in your home, the bell becomes part of your sangha, because the bell helps you to practice. If you have a cushion, then the cushion also becomes part of the sangha. Many things help us practice. The air, for breathing. If you have a park or a river bank near your home, you can enjoy practicing walking meditation. You have to discover your sangha. Invite a friend to come and practice with you, have tea meditation, sit with you, join you for walking medita­tion. All these efforts can help you establish your sangha at home. Practice is easier if you have a sangha.

The foundation of a community is a daily life that is joyful and happy. In Plum Village, children are the center of attention. Each adult is responsible for helping the children be happy, because we know that if the children are happy, it is easy for the adults to be happy. In old times, families were bigger. Not only nuclear families, but uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins all lived together. Houses were surrounded by trees where they could hang hammocks and organize picnics. In those times, people did not have many of the problems we do now. Today, our families are very small. Besides Mom and Dad, there are just one or two children. When the parents have a problem, the whole family feels the effects. The atmosphere in the house is heavy, and there is nowhere to escape. Sometimes a child may go to the bathroom and lock the door just to be alone, but still there is no escape. The heavy atmosphere permeates the bathroom too. So the child grows up with many seeds of suffering and can never feel truly happy and then transmits these seeds to his or her children.

Formerly, when Mom and Dad had some problems, the children could always escape by going to an aunt or an uncle. They still had someone to look up to, and the atmosphere was not so threatening. I think that communities of mindful living can replace our former big families, be­cause when we go to these communities, we see many aunts, uncles, and cousins, and that can help us a lot.

You know that aged people are very sad when they have to live separately from their children and grandchildren. This is one of the things in the West that I do not like very much. In my country, aged people have the right to live with the younger people. It is the grandparents who tell fairy tales to the children. When they get old, their skin is cold and wrinkled, and it is a great joy to hold their grandchild, so warm, so tender. When a person grows old, his or her deepest hope is to have a grandchild to hold in his or her arms. They hope for it day and night, and when they hear that their daughter is pregnant, they are so happy. Nowadays the elderly have to go to a home where they live only among other aged people. Just once a week they receive a short visit, and afterwards they feel even sadder. We have to find ways for old and young people to live together again. It will make all of us very happy.

A community of mindful living should be in a beautiful location in the countryside. In many cities today, you do not see a lot of trees, because so many trees have been cut down. I imagine—and I believe it is very close to reality—a city which has only one tree left. (I don’t know what kind of miracle helped preserve that one tree.) Many people in that city have become mentally ill because they are so alienated from nature, our mother. In the old time, we lived among trees and we sat in hammocks. Now we live in small boxes made of concrete. The air we breathe is not clean, and we get sick, not only in our bodies but in our souls.

I imagine that there is a doctor in the city who under­stands why everyone is getting sick, and every time some­one comes to him, he tells them, “You are sick because you are cut off from Mother Nature.” And he gives them this prescription: “Each morning, take the bus and go to the tree in the center of the city and practice tree-hugging medita­tion. Hold the tree and breathe in, ‘I am with my mother.’ Then breathe out, ‘I am happy.’ And look at the leaves so green and smell the bark of the tree that is so fragrant.” The prescription is for fifteen minutes of breathing and hugging the tree. After doing it for three months, the patient feels much better. But the doctor has many patients, and he gives each of them the same prescription.

So I imagine a bus in the city going in the direction of the tree, while people are standing in line, waiting their turn to embrace the tree and breathe. But the line is several miles long, and the crowd is becoming impatient because they have to wait for such a long time. They demand new laws which will limit each person to just one minute of tree-hugging. But one minute is not long enough to be effective, and then there is no remedy for society’s sickness. I am afraid we will be close to that situation very soon, if we are not mindful of what is going on in the present moment.

When we practice mindful living, we know what is going on in every moment of our daily lives. When we throw a banana peel into the garbage, we know it is a banana peel, and that banana peels decompose quickly and become flowers. But when we throw a plastic bag into the garbage, we have to know that it is a plastic bag. This is a practice of meditation: “I am throwing a plastic bag into the garbage can.” If we practice mindfulness, we will refrain from using things made of plastic, because we know that they take much more time to degrade into soil and become flowers. And we know that disposable diapers take four or five hundred years, so we refrain from using them. Nuclear waste, the most difficult kind of garbage, takes 250,000 years to become a flower. We are making the Earth an impossible place for our children to grow up.

Practicing mindfulness with friends allows us to get in touch with the healing aspects of life, Breathing mindfully the clean air, we plant seeds of healing within ourselves, our friends, and society. Smiling, we realize peace and joy. Communities of mindful living are very important for us to cultivate these practices.

Excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Lecture at the “Cultivat­ing Mindfulness” Retreat, Mt. Madonna Center, Watson­ville, California, April 1989.

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